1810s

Memoirs of John Quincy Adams

‘Edmund Kean as Richard III in “Richard III”‘.engraving, University of Illinois Digital Collections, https://digital.library.illinois.edu/items/85885f10-4e7d-0134-1db1-0050569601ca-9

Source: Charles Francis Adams (ed.), Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, comprising portions of his diary from 1795 to 1848 (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1874-77), vol. 3, pp. 466-467

Production: William Shakespeare (adapted by Colley Cibber), Richard III and Harlequin Horner, or, The Christmas pie, Drury Lane Theatre, London, 3 February 1817

Text: February 3rd [1817] … We went to Drury Lane, and saw “Richard the Third,” with the pantomime of “Harlequin Horner,” with a clown issuing from the Christmas pie. Kean performed Richard. The play is not exactly Shakspeare’s. Colley Cibber brought it out improved and amended, and John Kemble has improved upon it again. More than half the original tragedy, including many of the finest scenes, is discarded. Two or three scenes from the third part of Henry the Sixth are transferred to this play. There are modern additions, not well adapted to Shakspeare’s [sic] style, and his language itself is often altered, and seldom for the better. As it is, however, it has constantly been from Cibber’s time one of the standing favorites of the public on the English stage, and the character of Richard is one of the trying tests of their greatest tragic actors. I never saw it performed but once before, and that was at Boston in 1794. It is by many of Kean’s admirers considered as his greatest part; but his performance this night in some degree disappointed me. There is too much of rant in his violence, and not smoothness enough in his hypocrisy. He has a uniform fashion of traversing the stage from one side to the other when he has said a good thing, and then looks as if he was walking for a wager. At other times, he runs off from the stage with the gait of a running footman. In the passages of high passion he loses all distinct articulation and it is impossible to understand what he says. But he has much very good subsidiary pantomime, which is perhaps the first talent of a first-rate actor. He has a most keen and piercing eye, a great command and expression of countenance, and some transitions of voice of very striking effect. All the other male performers were indifferent, and the women below mediocrity. The two children (girls) were very good. The house was crowded, and the applause of Kean incessant during the tragedy. The fight between Richard and Richmond was skilful and vigorous. Kean always contrives to make a claptrap of his dying scenes. The clapping at his death continued five minutes long. The Duke and Duchess and Princess Sophia of Gloucester were present, and received with great applause. At their entrance, “God save the King” was performed by the orchestra, and sung by part of the players, the audience all standing.

Comments: John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) was the sixth President of the United States (1825-1829). In 1817, at the time of this diary entry, he was the US ambassador to Britain, before becoming Secretary of State to James Monroe. Edmund Kean (1787-1833) played Gloucester in a version of Shakespeare’s Richard III heavily rewritten by Colley Cibber. Harlequin Horner; or, Christmas Pie was a popular pantomime piece, first produced at Drury Lane in 1816.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Travels in France, During the Years 1814-15

Talma (Hamlet) and Joséphine Duchesnois (Gertrude) in 1807, via Gallica

Source: Archibald Alison, Travels in France, During the Years 1814-15. Comprising a residence at Paris during the stay of the allied armies, and at Aix, at the period of the landing of Bonaparte (Edinburgh: printed for Macredie, Skelly, and Muckersy; Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, London; Black, Parry & Co. and T. Underwood, London; and J. Cumming, Dublin. 1816), vol. 1, 2nd ed., pp. 204-215

Production: William Shakespeare (adapted by Jean-François Ducis), Hamlet, Théâtre-Français, Paris, 1814

Text: The tragedy of Hamlet, in which we saw Talma perform for the first time, is one which must be interesting to every person who has any acquaintance with French literature; and it will not probably be considered as any great digression in a description of Talma’s excellencies as an actor, to add some further remarks concerning that celebrated play in which his powers are perhaps most strikingly displayed, and which is one of the greatest compositions undoubtedly of the French theatre. It can hardly be called a translation, as many material alterations were made in the story of the play; and though the general purport of the principal speeches has
been sometimes preserved, the language and sentiments are generally extremely different. The character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was wholly unsuited to the taste of a French audience. What is the great attraction in that mysterious being to the feelings of the English people, the strange, wild, and metaphysical ideas which his art or his madness seems to take such pleasure in starting, and the uncertainty in which Shakespeare has left the reader with regard to Hamlet’s real situation, would not perhaps have been understood — certainly not admired, by those who were accustomed to consider the works of Racine and Voltaire as the models of dramatic composition. In the play of Ducis, accordingly, Hamlet thinks, talks, and acts pretty much as any other human being would do, who should be compelled to speak only in the verse of the French tragedy, which necessarily excludes, in a great degree, any great incoherence or flightiness of sentiment. In some respects, however, the French Hamlet, if a less poetical personage, is nevertheless a more interesting one, and better adapted to excite those feelings which are most within the command of the actor’s genius. M. Ducis has represented him as more doubtful of the reality of the vision which haunted him, or at least of the authority which had commissioned it for such dreadful communications; and this alteration, so important in the hands of Talma, was required on account of other changes which had been made in the story of the play. The paramour of the Queen is not Hamlet’s uncle, nor had the Queen either married the murderer, or discovered her criminal connexion with him. Hamlet, therefore, has not, in the incestuous marriage of his mother, that strong confirmation of the ghost’s communication, which, in Shakespeare, led him to suspect foul play even before he sees his father’s spirit. In the French play, therefore, Hamlet is placed in one of the most dreadful situations in which the genius of poetry can imagine a human being: Haunted by a spirit, which assumes such mastery over his mind, that he cannot dispel the fearful impression it has made, or disregard the communication it so often repeats, while his attachment to his mother, in whom he reveres the parent he has lost, makes him question the truth of crimes which are thus kid to her charge, and causes him to look upon this terrific spectre as the punishment of unknown crime, and the visitation of an offended Deity. Ducis has most judiciously and most poetically represented Hamlet, in the despair which his sufferings produce, as driven to the belief of an overruling destiny, disposing of the fate of its unhappy victims by the most arbitrary and revolting arrangement, and visiting upon some, with vindictive fury, the whole crimes of the age in which they live. There is in this introduction of ancient superstition, something which throws a mysterious veil round the destiny of Hamlet, that irresistibly engrosses the imagination, and which must be doubly interesting in that country where the horrors of the revolution have ended in producing a very prevalent, though vague belief, in the influence of fatality upon human character and human actions, among those who pretend to ridicule, as unmanly prejudice and childish delusion, the religion of modern Europe.

The struggle, accordingly, that appears to take place in Hamlet’s mind is most striking; and when at last he yields to the authority and the commands of the spirit, which exercises such tyranny over his mind, it does not seem the result of any farther evidence of the guilt which he is enjoined to revenge, but as the triumph of superstition over the strength of his reason. He had long resisted the influence of that visionary being, which announced itself as his father’s injured spirit, and in assuming that sacred form, had urged him to destroy the only parent whom fate had left; but the struggle had brought him to the brink of the grave, and shaken the empire of reason; and when at last he abandons himself to the guidance of a power which his firmer nature had long resisted, the impression of the spectator is, that his mind has yielded in the struggle, and that, in the desperate hope of obtaining relief from present wretchedness, he is about to commit the most horrible crimes, by obeying the suggestions of a spirit, which he more than suspects to be employed only to tempt him on to perdition. No description can possibly do justice to the manner in which this situation of Hamlet is represented by Talma; indeed, on reading over the play some time afterwards, it was very evident that the powers of the actor had invested the character with much of the grandeur and terror which seemed to belong to it, and that the imagination of the French poet, which rises into excellence, even when compared with the productions of that great master of the passions whom he has not submitted to copy, has been surpassed by the fancy of the actor for whom he wrote. The Hamlet of Talma is probably productive of more profound emotion, than any representation of character on any stage ever excited.

One other alteration ought to be mentioned, as it renders the circumstances of Hamlet’s situation still more distressing, and affords Talma an opportunity of displaying the effects of one of the gentler passions of human nature, when its influence seemed irreconcileable with the stern and fearful duties which fate had assigned to him. The Ophelia of the French play, so unlike that beautiful and innocent being who alone seems to connect the Hamlet of Shakespeare with the feelings and nature of ordinary men, has been made the daughter of the man for whose sake the king has been poisoned, and was engaged to marry Hamlet at that happier period when he was the ornament of his father’s court, and the hope of his father’s subjects. In the first part of the play, though no hint of the terrible revenge which he was to execute on her father has escaped, the looks and anxiety of Talma discover to her that her fate is in some degree connected with the emotions which so visibly oppress him, and she makes him at last confess the insurmountable barrier which separates them for ever. Nothing can be greater than the acting of Talma during this difficult scene, in which he has to resist the entreaties of the woman whom he loves, when imploring for the life of her father, and yet so overcome with his affection, as hardly to have strength left to adhere to his dreadful purpose.

The feelings of a French audience do not permit the spirit of Hamlet’s father to appear on the stage: “L’apparition se passe, (says Madame de Stael), en entier dans la physionomie de Talma, et certes elle n’en est pas ainsi moins effrayante. Quand, au milieu d’un entretien calme et melancohque, tout a coup il aperçoit le spectre, on suit tout ses mouvemens dans les yeux qui le contemplent, et l’on ne peut outer de la presence du fantome quand un tel regard l’atteste.” The remark is perfectly just, nothing can be imagined more calculated to dispel at once the effect which the countenance of a great actor, in such circumstances, would naturally produce, than bringing any one on the stage to personate the ghost; and whever has seen Talma in this part, will acknowledge that the mind is not disposed to doubt, for an instant, the existence of that form which no eye but his has seen, and of that voice which no ear but his has heard. We regretted much, while witnessing the astonishing powers which Talma displayed in this very difficult part of the play, that it was impossible to see his genius employed in giving effect to the character of Aristodemo, (in the Italian tragedy of that name by Monti), to which his talents alone could do justice, and which, perhaps, affords more room for the display of the actor’s powers, than any other play with which we are acquainted.

But the soliloquy on death is the part in which the astonishing excellence and genius of Talma are most strikingly displayed. Whatever difficulty there may often be to determine the particular manner in which scenes, with other characters, ought to be performed, there is no difference of opinion as to the manner in which soliloquies ought in general to be delivered. How comes it, then, that these are the very parts in which all feel that the powers of the actors are so much tried, and in which, for the most part, they principally fail? No one can have paid any attention to the English stage, without being struck with the circumstance, that while there may be much to praise in the performance of the other parts, many of the best actors uniformly fail in soliloquies; and that it is only of late, since the reputation of the English stage has been so splendidly revived, that we have seen these difficult and interesting parts properly performed. It is in this circumstance, more than any other, in which the talents of Talma are most remarkably displayed, because he is peculiarly fitted, by his complete personation of character, and the deep interest which he seems himself to take in the part he is sustaining, to excel in performing what chiefly requires such interest. He is, at all times, so fully impressed with the feelings, which, under such circumstances, must have been really felt, that one is uniformly struck with the truth and propriety of every thing he does; and of course, n soliloquies, which must be perfect, when the actor appears to be seriously and deeply interested in the subjects on which he is meditating, Talma invariably succeeds. In this soliloquy in Hamlet, he is completely absorbed in the awful importance of the great question which occupies his attention, and nothing indicates the least consciousness of the multitude which surrounds him, or even that he is giving utterance to the mighty thoughts which crowd upon his mind. “Talma ne faisoit pas un geste, quelquefois seulement il remuoit la tête pour questioner la terre et le ciel sur ce que c’est que la mort! Immobile, la dignite de la meditation absorboit tout son etre.” We could wish to avoid any attempt to describe the acting of Talma in those passages which the eloquence of M. de Stael has rendered familiar throughout Europe; yet we feel that this account of the tragedy of Hamlet would be imperfect, if we did not allude to that very interesting scene, which corresponds, in the history of the play, to the closet scene in Shakespeare. Talma appears with the urn which contains the ashes of his father, and whose injured spirit he seems to consult, to obtain more proof of the guilt which he is to revenge, or in the hope that the affections of human nature may yet survive the horrors of the tomb, and that the duty of the son will not be tried in the blood of the parent who gave him birth. But no voice is heard to alter the sentence which he is doomed to execute; and he is still compelled to prepare himself to meet with sternness his guilty mother. After charging her, with the utmost tenderness and solemnity, with the knowledge of her husband’s murder, he places the urn in her hands, and requires her to swear her innocence over the sacred ashes which it contains. At first, the consciousness that Hamlet could only suspect her crime, gives her resolution to commence the oath with firmness; and Talma, with an expression of countenance which cannot be described, awaits, in triumph and joy, the confirmation of her innocence, — and seems to call upon the spirit which had haunted him, to behold the solemn scene which proves the falsehood of its mission. But the very tenderness which he shews destroys the resolution of his mother, and she hesitates in the oath she had begun to pronounce. His feelings are at once changed, — the paleness of horror, and fury of revenge, are marked in his countenance, and his hands grasp the steel which is to punish her guilt: But the agony of his mother again overpowers him, at the moment he is about to strike; he appeals for mercy to the shade of his father, in a voice, in which, as M. de Stael has truly said, all the feelings of human nature seem at once to burst from his heart, and, in an attitude humbled by the view of his mother’s guilt and wretchedness, he awaits the confession she seems ready to make: and when she sinks, overcome by the remorse and agony which she feels, he remembers only that she is his mother; the affection which had been long repressed again returns, and he throws himself on his knees, to assure her of the mercy of Heaven. We do not wish to be thought so presumptuous as to compare the talents of the French author with the genius of Shakespeare, but we must be allowed to say, that we think this scene better managed for dramatic effect: and certainly no part of Hamlet, on the English stage, ever produced the same impression, or affected us so deeply. We are well aware, however, how very different the scene would have appeared in the hands of any other actors than Talma and Madle. Duchesnois, and that a very great part of the merit which the play seemed to possess, might be more justly attributed to the talents which they displayed. At the conclusion of this great tragedy, which has become so popular in France, and in which the genius of Talma is so powerfully exhibited, the applause was universal; and after some little time, to our surprise, instead of diminishing, became much louder; and presently a cry of Talma burst out from the whole house. In a few minutes the curtain drew up, and discovered Talma waiting to receive the applause with which they honoured him, and to express his sense of the distinction paid to him.

Comments: Archibald Alison (1792-1867) was a Scottish lawyer and historian, author of the ten-volume History of Europe from the Commencement of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Restoration of the Bourbons in 1815 (1833-1843). Jean-François Ducis helped introduce Shakespeare to the French through adaptations of the plays in which elements of the plot were sometimes radically altered. His adaptation of Hamlet was made in 1760. Ducis’s adaptations were billed under his name rather than Shakespeare‘s. François-Joseph Talma performed in a number of Ducis’s adaptations. Hamlet’s mother was played by Joséphine Duchesnois. Madame de Staël wrote about Talma’s Hamlet in De l’Allemagne (1813).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of an Invalid

Mademoiselle Duchesnois as Joan of Arc, via Wikipedia

Source: Henry Matthews, Diary of an Invalid, being the Journal of a Tour in pursuit of health; in Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, and France, in the years 1817, 1818, and 1819, vol. 2 (London: J. Murray, 1824, 4th edition), pp. 283-288

Production: Charles-Joseph Laeillard d’Avirigni, Jeanne d’Arc à Rouen, and Étienne Gosse, Les Femmes politiques, Théâtre Français, Paris, 26 May 1819

Text: 26th. In the evening to the Théâtre Français. When a favourite piece is performed, it is necessary to be at the doors some time before they are opened. But the candidates for places have the good sense to perceive the inconvenience of thronging in a disorderly manner, and the established rule is to form à la queue as it is called; that is, in a column of two a-breast, and every one is obliged to take his place in the rear, in the order in which he arrives. This is done with as much order and regularity as would be observed in a regiment of soldiers; in consequence of which the whole business is conducted without the smallest tumult, and with ease to every one. It is true that the gens d’armes in attendance have authority to enforce this rule, if there should be any person so unreasonable as to refuse compliance; but still great credit is due to the French for their ready adoption of what is rational. The play was Joanne d’Arc. Mademoiselle Duchesnois was the heroine, and a most alarmingly ugly heroine she made; but bodily defects are of little importance if the soul be of the right temper. When that is the case –

“Pritchard’s genteel, and Garrick’s six feet high.”

Her face, however plain, is capable of considerable variety of expression; and, what is of more importance than beauty, there is a great deal of mind in her countenance; for this is absolutely necessary to command our interest and sympathy. Who can sympathize with a simpleton, even if it be a pretty simpleton? Duchesnois drew down much applause, and she deserved it;-she feels justly, and has the faculty of expressing what she feels. This is the extent of her merit; but here, where there is so much unnatural declamation, her style appears to the greatest advantage.

Mademoiselle Volnais, for example, with a plump unmeaning pretty face, chants out her part, with no more apparent feeling or understanding than a parrot.

La Fond, who is a great favourite with the audience, played Talbot with something that was very like spirit and dignity; but he can never conceal the actor; he is all “strut and bellow;” and his voice, though it has great compass, is harsh and unpleasant. The political allusions of which the play is full, particularly the prophetic denunciations of Joanne against England, were eagerly seized by the audience, and rancorously applauded. It must require all the vanity of the French, to sit and hear, as the audience did with patience and complacency, the most fulsome and disgusting flattery addressed to their national feelings, in the vilest and worst taste of clap-traps. The very gallery in England has grown out of its liking for this sort of stuff.

A new after-piece followed—“Les Femmes Politiques;” a pretty trifle written in elegant language, which was charmingly delivered. Mademoiselle Mars and Mademoiselle Dupuis played delightfully; Baptiste ainé looked and spoke like the old gentleman he represented; and Monrose excited a laugh without descending to buffoonery and caricature. This sort of conversational French comedy is delightful;-it is Nature in her best dress—polite—well bred—and sparkling.

But, in comedies where there is more room for the exhibition of comic humour, the French actors are perhaps inferior to our own. We shall in vain look for parallels of what Lewis was, or what Munden and Dowton are; and even with respect to Mademoiselle Mars, excellent as she is in the first and highest walks of comedy, for which she seems designed by nature—being very beautiful, very graceful, and perfectly well-bred;—yet, in characters of archness and humour, she might put a little more heart, and a great deal more mind into her representations. We miss the force, the richness, and the warmth of Mrs. Jordan’s acting, and the exquisite point that she had the art of giving to comic dialogue; which only wanted the embellishments and good-breeding of the French Thalia, to constitute a perfect actress.

The point of perfection would perhaps be found somewhere between the styles of the two nations. To take an example from the Tartuffe —the famous scene between Tartuffe and Elmire is scarcely played up to the intention of the author, by Damas and Mademoiselle Mars, and it certainly might be coloured higher, without overstepping the modesty of nature. Dowton, in Cantwell, may go a little too far with Lady Lambert—and yet who can think so that remembers the effect produced by his management of the interview?— but Damas, in Tartuffe, does not go far enough with Elmire. The scene “comes tardy off:”—bienséance, when carried too far, is a millstone round the neck of tragedy and comedy. Congreve says well, that a scene on the stage must represent nature, but in warmer colours than it exists in reality. It is in Molière particularly, perhaps exclusively, that the French comedians seem to fall short of the author; for Molière is the most humorous of all their writers. He is the Fielding of France, and there is a richness and a raciness about him which are sometimes frittered away in the representation.

Comments: Henry Matthews (1789-1828) was a British judge. On account of ill health, he went on a recuperative tour of Europe over 1817-1819. The published diary of his travels, The Diary of an Invalid (1820), was very popular and went through a number of editions. The two-volume diary has several entries on theatregoing. The play w=he saw at the Théâtre Français (the Comédie-Française) was Charles-Joseph Laeillard d’Avirigni’s Jeanne d’Arc à Rouen, with Joan played by Joséphine Duchesnois. The afterpiece was Les Femmes politiques, a verse comedy by Étienne Gosse. Other performers mentioned include Mlle. Volnais, M. Lafond, Mademoiselle Mars, Mlle. Dupuis and Nicolas Anselme Baptiste (Baptiste aîné).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain

Sir Thomas Lawrence, ‘John Philip Kemble as Hamlet’ (1802), via Wikimedia Commons

Source: A French Traveller [Louis Simond], Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the years 1810 and 1811: with remarks on the country, its arts, literature, and politics, and on the manners and customs of its inhabitants (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1815), pp. 121-125

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet and George Colman the Younger, The Grand Dramatic Romance Bluebeard, or Female Curiosity, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 21 April 1811

Text: April 21. — Hamlet was acted yesterday at Covent-Garden, and Kemble, the reigning prince of the English stage, filled the principal part. He understands his art thoroughly, but wants spirit and nature. His manner is precise and artificial; his voice monotonous and wooden; his features are too large, even for the stage. Munden in the part of Polonius, and Fawcett in the grave-digger, played charmingly. It is enough to mention the grave-diggers, to awaken in France the cry of rude and barbarous taste; and, were I to say how the part is acted, it might be still worse. After beginning their labour, and breaking ground for a grave, a conversation begins between the two grave-diggers. The chief one takes off his coat, folds it carefully, and puts it by in a safe corner; then, taking up his pick-axe, spits in his hand,— gives a stroke or two,— talks,— stops,— strips off his waistcoat, still talking, — folds it with great deliberation and nicety, and puts it with the coat, then an under-waistcoat, still talking, — another and another. I counted seven or eight, each folded and unfolded very leisurely, in a manner always different, and with gestures faithfully copied from nature. The British public enjoys this scene excessively, and the pantomimic variations a good actor knows how to introduce in it, are sure to be vehemently applauded. The French admit of no such relaxation in the dignité tragique.

L’éroite bienseance y veut être gardée;

and Boileau did not even allow Moliere to have won the prize of comedy, because he had

Quitté pour le bouffon l’agréable et le fin
Et sans honte a Terence allié Tabarin

much less would he or his school have approved of an alliance between tragedy and farce. Yet it may well be questioned whether the interest is best kept up by an uninterrupted display of elevation. For my part, I am inclined to think that the repose afforded by a comic episode renovates the powers of attention and of feeling, and prepares for new tragical emotions more effectually than an attempt to protract these emotions during the whole representation could have done. It is by no means usual for the different actors of the same scene, in real life, to be all equally affected. The followers of a hero do not feel as magnanimous as himself, and are even apt to laugh among themselves at his vices or his virtues. The hero himself is not always a hero, and does not speak invariably in the same tone. Indeed I do not know that it is unnatural for the same person to laugh and cry, within the same half hour, at the very same thing, or at least various views of the same thing; nor that this inconsistency of the human mind might not furnish stronger dramatic touches than the contrary quality. Poetical excitement cannot be maintained long at a time; you must take it up and lay it down like a flower, or soon cease to be sensible of the fragrance. If real illusion could ever take place in dramatic representation, it would certainly be produced rather by that diversity of tone and character which exists in nature, than by an artificial unity. But nobody does, in point of fact, forget for a moment, that what he sees is a fable, and, if he did, the effect of a tragedy would hardly be pleasure. We look on poetical terrors as we do from the brink of a precipice upon the yawning chasm below; it makes our head turn, and takes off our breath for very fear ; but, leaning on the parapet-wall, we feel all safe. Looking on the verdure and mild beauties around us, we enjoy the contrast; and, meeting the eye of our companion, exchange a smile.

Voltaire, D’Alembert, and many other foreign critics, agree in reproving this scene of the grave-diggers as horribly low, while they extol the soliloquy of Hamlet. Supposing, however, the sentiments of the prince had been put into the mouth of the peasant, and those of the peasant given to the prince, I question whether these critics would not still have taken part with the latter against the former. It is the spade and the jests which discredit the philosophy, yet there is a certain coarse but energetic fitness between the one and the other, — and the tone of buffoonery does not ill accord with the contempt of life, its vanities, and empty greatness. I have made a free translation of these two scenes, endeavouring to convey the ideas rather than the words, that my French readers may judge for themselves.

The tragedy of Hamlet is much more objectionable on other points, —being, in my opinion, one of the most ill conceived and inexplicable of Shakespeare’s plays,— which are all of them little else than mere frames for his ideas, comic or philosophical, gloomy or playful, as they occurred, without much attention to time and place; expressed with a vigour, a richness, and originality, quite wonderful in the original, but nearly lost in any translation. We might apply to Shakespeare what has been said of our Montaigne: “que personne ne savoit moins que lui, ce qu’il alloit dire, ni mieux ce qu’il disoit.” I have remarked before, that the style of Shakespeare is not old; and the inartificial texture of his plays appears the more strange on that account :— this style, just as it is, might be applied to the best conducted fable, and most regular argument. Of the dramatic writers who followed him, some avoided his irregularities, but missed his style, or rather had not his depth, his strength and genius; while others, and there is a recent example, approached that style, and had some sparks of that genius, but adopted, in their zeal, the inconsistencies, the coarseness, and even the puns. You can excuse, in a Gothic cathedral of five or six hundred years standing, those monkish figures carved on the walls, lolling their tongues out, or pointing the finger of scorn at each other, in low derision, and others still more indecent, in favour of the wonderful art, which, in such an age of darkness and ignorance, durst conceive, and could execute the idea of building this religious grove, rearing its arched boughs, and
lofty shades of hewn stones 150 feet above your head; — while the country-house of the wealthy citizen of London, mimicking that taste of architecture, excites a smile, — and if he should carry the imitation beyond the pointed arch, and painted windows, to the very indecencies I have mentioned, the ridicule would be complete.

The after-piece was Blue-Beard, which outdoes, in perversion of taste, all the other showy stupidities of the modern stage. A troop of horse (real horse) is actually introduced, or rather two troops, charging each other full speed, — the floor is covered with earth, — the horses are Astley’s, and well drilled; they kick, and rear, and bite, and scramble up walls almost perpendicular, and when they can do no more, fall, and die as gracefully as any of their brethren, the English tragedians. All this might do very well at Astley’s, but what a pity and a shame that horses should be the successors of Garrick, and bring fuller houses than Mrs Siddons!

Comments: Louis Simond (1767-1831) was a French travel writer. He journeyed through Britain over 1810-11, writing his published account in English. The production of Hamlet that he saw at Covent Garden featured John Philip Kemble as Hamlet and Joseph Munden as Polonius and John Fawcett as the gravedigger. The afterpiece was George Colman the Younger‘s 1798 play The Grand Dramatic Romance Bluebeard, or Female Curiosity. Astley’s Amphitheatre in London was famed for its circus and equestrian entertainments.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley

Source: Richard Edgecumbe (ed.), The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley (New York: C. Scribner’s, 1912-1913), vol. 2, pp. 58-59

Text: As we passed the theatre we decided to enter, and hear Miss Stephens sing Scotch ballads to a Scottish audience. Much to our surprise we found the theatre so empty that we obtained seats in the front row. This led to some conversation afterwards relative to the sobriety in the search for amusement which is so characteristic of the people of Edinburgh. Some years ago Catalani gave a concert here. Every place was crowded, and she reaped a rich harvest. The next year she was tempted to come again, and the contrast was most striking; no one who had heard her before went again. When asked the reason, they replied that they had heard her. There was no satire in this, for the same thing occurred with Miss O’Neill. I saw her play, literally, to empty benches, and was able to obtain a seat in the front row. This is the more remarkable, as at her first visit the pressure was so great that people were fainting. All the boxes had been taken previous to her arrival in Edinburgh. I never admired Miss Stephens so much as on this occasion. The small theatre was favourable to her articulation, and I did not lose a word of that pathetic ballad “Auld Robin Gray,” which was rapturously encored, and no wonder, for she sings it with a degree of pathos difficult to describe. There was not a note, nor an intonation, which did not express in its fullest sense the pure feelings and sentiments of that most exquisite piece of poetry. I have always been of opinion that “Auld Robin Gray” affords the best example of female virtue, based on principle and sensibility, to be found in the English language. In a pure mind, like Lady Anne Lindsay’s, the spear of Ithuriel would instantly dissipate the sophism of Rousseau, and depict in their true colours and in their natural deformity the vaunted perfections of his Héloïse.

Comments: Frances Lady Shelley (1787-1873) was a well-connected, vivacious British society figure, whose lively diaries (edited by her grandson) include several accounts of theatregoing. Catherine Stephens, Countess of Essex (1794-1822) was an English concert and opera singer and actress. Eliza O’Neill was an English tragic actress (1791-1872). ‘Auld Robin Gray’ is a ballad by Lady Anne Lindsay. The Edinburgh theatre was presumably the Theatre Royal in Princes Street.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

A Persian at the Court of King George

Source: Mirza Abul Hassan Khan (ed./trans. Margaret Morris Cloake), A Persian at the Court of King George: The Journal of Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, 1809-10 (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1988), p. 232

Text: 14 May [1810]

My friends told me about a theatre on the outskirts of London called ‘Astley’s Amphitheatre’, which opens in the spring, and where one can watch horses dancing. I went there with Sir Gore Ouseley. The theatre is somewhat smaller than the others I have seen and described in this journal.

I will describe the performance of one of the nimble riders who stood on a horse’s back, without holding the reins, while the horse continued to run around the circular arena. Sometimes he jumped down to the ground and back up again; sometimes he stood on one foot, or lay down, or stood on his head with his legs in the air; sometimes he would vault himself from one side of the horse to the other; or, grasping the horse’s body with his legs, he would hang underneath with his hands trailing on the ground. Then a second horse was brought in to run alongside the first. The rider jumped back and forth from one horse to the other, dancing and clapping his hands. A third horse was added and he continued dancing. Most amazing of all was his feat of jumping from one side to the other over all three horses!

The owner of the theatre was a friendly man; he explained to me how the horses are trained to perform these tricks. My Iranian servants were amazed and astonished by what they had seen.

As we left the theatre, I told Sir Gore Ouseley I thought the horses performed so well that it should be called the ‘Horse Opera’.

Comments: Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, or Mirza Abolhassan Khan Ilchi (1776-1845) was an Iranian ambassador who headed a diplomatic mission to Great Britain in 1809-1810. Astley’s Amphitheatre was originally a circus (opened 1770), but later put on pantomimes and other such entertainments. It was located by Westminster Bridge and had burned down twice before it became famous in the 1800s for its equestrian spectaculars, such as seen by Mirza Abul Hassan Khan.

Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain

Source: A French Traveller [Louis Simond], Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the years 1810 and 1811: with remarks on the country, its arts, literature, and politics, and on the manners and customs of its inhabitants (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1815), pp. 126-127

Production: John G. Millingen and Charles E. Horn, The Bee-hive, Lyceum Theatre, London, 30 April 1811

Text: April 30. — I have already given a literal translation of one of those lyric pieces which are introduced in many English farces, and are often sung between he play and the farce. At Edinburgh we heard Bannister, and here Mathews, sing some of these select pieces with a great deal of true comic, and what is called here dry humour. Yesterday, particularly, Mathews delighted the public of the Lyceum in a new play, called the Bee-hive, played forty times running. The song of an inn-keeper, who enumerates the contents of his larder and kitchen, was encored again and again, with frantic applause. Other songs, however, which happened to be less in the popular taste, were received with coolness, and we heard some men behind us exclaim, among themselves, “Italian squalls!— What a shame, on a British theatre, — Just like the opera by G— !” Whenever I have expressed any surprise at the state of the English stage, I have been told that it was only the amusement of the vulgar, and that if I chose to partake of it, I must not complain. Admitting that people of fashion scarcely ever go to the theatre, yet the lowest of the people do not frequent it more then they do; — it is in fact filled by the middle class, neither the highest nor the lowest, and that is precisely the class where I should look for the true and legitimate national taste. Besides, if the theatres of Covent-Garden and Drury-Lane are for the vulgar, what other is there left for those who rank themselves above the vulgar? The opera, — in other words, there is no national theatre.

Comments: Louis Simond (1767-1831) was a French travel writer. He journeyed through Britain over 1810-11, writing his published account in English. The Bee-hive was a two-act music farce with libretto by John G. Millingen and music by Charles E. Horn.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Extracts of the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry

Source: Lady Theresa Lewis (ed.), Extracts of the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry, from the year 1783 to 1852 (London: Longmans, Green, 1865), pp. 167-168

Production: Antoine de la Fosse, Manlius Capitolinus and Marc-Antoine Legrand, L’Aveugle Clairvoyant, Comédie-Française, Paris, 6 July 1818

Text: Monday, July 6th. — M. de Duras gave us tickets for this week in the box of the gentlemen in waiting. I arrived in time to see the last scene’ of Talma, in ‘Manlius.’ It was the night of his return to the theatre after rather a long absence. On the curtain falling, they called loudly for him, with a noise and a disturbance much more like London than Paris. Three times they in vain began the second piece; it was impossible to hear a word. Three times the two actresses who had to commence the piece took refuge in the side scenes. At last, whilst Baptiste Cadet came forward to address the audience, some officer of the police, in his scarf of office, announced that, by an order of the police, the actors were forbidden to appear upon the stage out of their parts. One might well ask why this rule? which prevents the audience from showing, and the actor from receiving, these marks of approbation. They have much to learn in this country upon the ne quid nimis in the way of government. At last the audience was asked if they would have the second piece, ‘L’Aveugle Clairvoyant.’ Upon the reiterated ‘Ouis’ from the pit, they replied, ‘Vous l’aurez quand ces misérables criards ont cesses.’ On this the noise was renewed for some minutes, after which we had the piece very well acted and very amusing.

Comments: Mary Berry (1763-1852) was a British editor, letter writer and diarist, known for her close association with Horace Walpole. Her published journals and correspondence include many theatregoing references. François-Joseph Talma (1762-1826) was the leading French actor of the period. One of his most celebrated roles was than of Manlius in Manlius Capitolinus, the 1698 Roman tragedy by Antoine de La Fosse. L’Aveugle Clairvoyant was written by the prolific French playwright Marc-Antoine Legrand.

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The Diary of Philipp Von Neumann

Source: E. Beresford Chancellor (ed.), The Diary of Philipp von Neumann, vol. 1 (London: Philip Allan, 1928), p. 5

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Covent Garden Teahtre, London, 27 September 1819

Text: Sept. 27th. While riding in Hyde Park my groom fell from his horse and hurt his foot badly. I dined at the Piazza Coffee House and later went to Lady Floyd who had offered me a place at her box at Covent Garden. They performed Hamlet. Charles Kemble filled the title-rôle, and did it very well. He has a noble presence, but puts too much pathos into the part for which, too, he is not young enough. Miss Mathews as Ophelia so overdid the character, one of the most interesting in English tragedy, that she almost made a caricature of it. It is a pity that a play containing so many beauties should be spoilt, as most of Shakespeare’s are, by certain blemishes of taste. In spite of excisions, much had been left in which may suit the spirit of the people but to which others object. The management has to consider the former rather than the latter.

Comments: Baron Philipp von Neumann (1781-1851) was an Austrian diplomat, posted at the Austrian embassy in London during the 1810s and 1820s. His diaries provide a detailed account of the political and high society life of the time, and document his many visits to the theatre and opera. Charles Kemble, at the time of this production, was forty-four years old. Miss Mathews (presumably related to theatre manager Charles Mathews) had stood in at short notice for Ann Maria Tree, who was unwell.

The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley

Source: Richard Edgecumbe (ed.), The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley (New York: C. Scribner’s, 1912-1913), pp. 104-105

Production: André Grétry and Michel-Jean Sedaine, Richard Coeur-de-lion, Théâtre Feydeau, Paris, July 1815

Text: The Prussians are quartered all over Paris; and wherever they suspect the loyalty of the inhabitants they keep quartering more soldiers upon them. Our men are quartered out of the town – in the Bois de Boulogne – the officers excepted. One evening we went to the Théâtre Feydeau, opera comique. The first piece was ending as we entered the house, and some couplets were sung in praise of Louis XVIII; they were received with violent applause by the whole audience. One man, however, ventured to hiss, whereupon there was a great disturbance, and the individual in question was thrown out of the pit. The couplets were then encored amid tumultuous expressions of delight. It was a moving scene. The petit-pièce was entitled “Richard Coeur de Lion.” The man who represented Blondel had been with the King to Ghent, and was consequently much applauded. He sang well, and with real feeling. When Marguerite in the play said, “Vous etiez avec le Roi,” the cheering was beyond description. I cannot describe the enthusiasm which prevailed throughout the house. The theatre is dirty, the boxes small and insufferably hot.

Comments: Frances Lady Shelley (1787-1873) was a well-connected, vivacious British society figure, whose lively diaries (edited by her grandson) include several accounts of theatregoing. At the time of this diary entry, Paris was occupied by British and Prussian troops following the defeat of Napoleon. She saw the opéra comique Richard Coeur-de-lion composed by André Grétry, with a libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine, at the Théâtre Feydeau. It was an immensely popular work, first performed in 1784, but was not presented in France during the revolutionary period, owing to its royalist theme.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust